Risky Business Indeed
Why the Tom Cruise bubble burst.
A worry shadows the forthcoming Tom Cruise thriller Valkyrie. The worry is that, upon seeing Cruise done up in an eye patch and Nazi jackboots— trick or treat!— audiences will laugh. This is not a high bar for the world's biggest movie star. Cruise is now 46 years old, roughly midcareer for an actor of his stature; and yet the brand has fallen so far that a throwaway summer goof, his cameo as Lev Grossman, the too-Jewish super producer of Tropic Thunder, was regarded as a "comeback." By way of contrast, when Jack Nicholson was 46, he appeared in Terms of Endearment. Nicholson's performance as retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove won him an Oscar, but more importantly, it permitted some humanity to rise up through accumulated strata of stock deviltry, and stand forth warmly. Cruise, meanwhile, gyrates in a fat suit.
In a cold balancing of assets and liabilities, it's hard to see how Cruise is on the verge of a silver-years renaissance of the kind that awaited Nicholson or, say, Paul Newman (44 for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 48 for The Sting) or Spencer Tracy (49 for Adam's Rib, 52 for Pat and Mike). Cruise has that famous smile, of course, his boyish good trim, and a synthetic American normalcy that puts him over with audiences in Bhutan or Sri Lanka. Now think about what he lacks: humanitas, gravitas, carnality, whimsy—everything, in short, that might rise up to fill a midlife smile with feeling. Even premium Cruise, the A-game actorly actor of Born on the Fourth of July and Magnolia, who gears up a half-berserk lour when working with a directorly director, offers more of the same: bark, glare, seethe, repeat.
I can't name another American icon who has been so popular, and for so long, and yet so hard to like, and for so long. (When the studio sent the then-mostly unknown Cruise to Paul Brickman, the writer-director of Risky Business, Brickman recoiled, saying, "This guy's a killer. Let him do Amityville 3.") But note a curious fact about his career: It maps perfectly onto the 25-year bull market in stocks that, like Cruise, is starting to show its age. Nascent in the early '80s, emergent in 1983, dominant in the '90s, suspiciously resilient in the '00s, and, starting in 2005, increasingly prone to alarming meltdowns. Forboth Cruise and the Dow Jones, more and more leverage is required for less and less performance. Place Cruise next to Nicholson, Newman, and Tracy, and he is a riddle. Place him next to Reagan, and he is not so confounding at all.
More so than any of his contemporaries, Cruise brought to '80s cinema an aura that corresponded to the novel tonalities of Reaganism. From the counterculture nebbishes (Hoffman, Sutherland, Gould) he borrowed a certain insouciant charm. From the silent-majority fascists (Eastwood, Bronson) he borrowed a body queen's emphasis on physique. From the new Brandos (DeNiro, Pacino) he borrowed flashes of Method intensity. He measured and admixed these to create a wholly new male persona in American acting. He is the boyish hard-body, pin-neat, sleek, yip-yippily filled with self-celebration. (He is Andy Hardy, but he can beat the crap out of you.) Certain that the world will find him charming, his biggest challenge is his own dubious maturity.
The perfect apotheosis of Cruise remains Maverick in Top Gun. But before he emerged as the '80s incarnate, Cruise had to kill within himself every tendency to messiness and ambivalence. How do I know? Because before he became the '80s incarnate, Cruise played Joel Goodsen, the neurotic suburban boy of Risky Business. It is a beautiful and authentic piece of acting. To watch his performance today—and you should—is to be present again, not only at the creation of Cruise, the movie star, but at the death of Cruise, an actor bounded by normal human proportion.
Risky Business is widely misremembered as a pubescent sex farce, but it's closer in spirit to The Graduate or The Apartment than to Porky's or American Pie. Written and directed by Brickman, the movie tells the story of a high school kid from the wealthy suburbs of Chicago who turns his parents' house into a brothel. Granted, on first blush this sounds like the classic Hollywood amble of the high concept down the low road. But for an hour before the hookers show up in Glencoe, we get a loving depiction of the rich kid's last go-round with his rich kid's innocence. In the opening dream sequence, Joel happens upon a painfully sexy woman taking a shower in his own house, only to discover he is late for the SATs. Joel's life is dominated by two anxieties: his inability to get laid, and his inability to get into Princeton, his father's alma mater, for which he is at best a mediocre candidate.
What embarrasses the purveyors of Valkyrie is here the source of a captivating charm: the suspicion that Cruise can barely pull this off. Cruise's Goodsen is a vision of a teenager stranded upon the dreariness of the late '70s. Whatever enlivening power the words counterculture and youth movement once held has drained away; a status quo has reasserted itself, but without much enthusiasm. Brickman grew up in the world of preppy affluence and supplied Cruise with its look and feel. (Cruise and Brickman "would show up on the set wearing exactly the same clothes," Rebecca DeMornay, Cruise's co-star, later told Premiere. "The jeans, the sweater, the loafers. It was Tom's outfit for the movie, but it just happened to coincide with Paul's real-life wardrobe. They were both Joel, as far as I could see.") As to the source of Joel's paralysis, Brickman's script is also specific. It is not that Joel can't get laid or get into Princeton. It's that, as Joel sees it, he can't get laid and get into Princeton.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.